Pirate DVD’s On The Eastern Seas

If you are here in the Philippines for more than a few days I can almost guarantee you one place that will catch your eye is one of the small shops along the streets here that sells DVDs.  These shops are usually not more than a 10’ x 15’ single room with a massive collection of DVDs on tables and along the walls.  I can sometimes find up to four of these shops on the same block, they are everywhere here in the Philippines.  Very direct marketing.. you like it, you buy it.  Here’s the low-down on this from what I’ve seen both here and in the U.S. regarding Pirated DVDs.

Usually when you go to buy something here in the Philippines you find yourself haggling the price a bit.  Fruit, t-shirts, flip-flops.. it’s whatever price you and the vendor can agree to.  But for some reason what I’ve found (happily) is that everyone around here seems to have agreed on a single price system when it comes to bootleg DVDs.  Here’s what it’s been, invariably, at the shops and open marketplaces that I’ve interviewed;

New, “Still In Theatres” and “Not Yet On DVD” movies – 3 for 100 Pesos or 35 Pesos each.
‘Combo’ DVDs with 2 or 3 movies on one DVD.. or TV Show Season DVDs – 50 Pesos each.

If you’re paying more than that, you’re getting hosed.  The ‘3 for 100 Pesos’ works out to about a total of $2.38 USD.  This means you’re getting each DVD for about 79 cents each.  The ‘Combo DVD for 50 Pesos’ is equivalent to about $1.19 USD each.

Walmart usually has some pretty low prices.  Let’s see.. currently (2012) the Season 8 collection of the TV Series ‘HOUSE’ is going for.. $50.98 USD.  That’s with the $9 discount you get for ordering it online.  If you want the earlier seasons, you’ll be glad to know you can pick those up for only $24.96 (again, if you order online, add 15% if you shop at the actual store).

So.. to re-cap;  Hmm.. 79 cents from the guy down the street and take it home with you ‘now’.. versus order it online and wait perhaps 3-5 weeks for it to arrive by mail in the Philippines, not counting additional overseas charges.. at $24 to $50.  Yep, I’d say that even with my limited formal training in economics that pirated DVDs have a certain appeal to the local buyer here in the Philippines.  Especially when $50 is pretty much three week’s pay around here.  I really love ‘Dexter’, ‘Desperate Housewives’ and all the ‘CSI’ series but.. 3 week’s pay at the local economy?  I’ll have to give that one a bit more thought.

But it’s not all apples to apples when it comes to bootleg DVDs.  Here is what you can expect based on what you buy at one of these ‘discount’ DVD stores..

If it’s ‘Still In The Theatres’ that means it’s not available on DVD.  Therefore, while you’ll get the initial satisfaction of seeing the latest movie in your home rather than on the big-screen at the theaters (with the awesome sound system) at the mall.. what you’ll see is the end-product of some guy with a handi-cam sitting in the 30th row.  Sometimes you’ll see the silhouette of people getting up to hit the bathroom or snack bar or just plain showing up late.  Other times the entire movie is either slightly crooked, or some part of the screen has been chopped off.  This is especially annoying for movies with subtitles or wide-screen action shots.  And even if by some chance ‘handi-cam guy’ used a tripod and framed the screen in a centered fashion.. the sound might be either kinda muffled or blown out because the cheap-o handi-cam he had didn’t have a decent microphone for high volume audio.

If you ask me, it kinda takes away from the whole experience of seeing it with bright colors, fully framed and the rocking sound system you’d experience in the theaters.  A movie theater here in the Philippines showing newly released movies only charge about $4.25.  And that’s not a matinee price.. that’s the full price.  As I’ve mentioned in some of my videos online, the theatres here are state-of-the-art and even better than the one in my home town.

Next you have the ‘Season’ DVDs of popular American Television shows and movies that HAVE been released to DVD.  Now, here’s a quick technical note for you to keep in mind.. copying a movie from a DVD (called ‘ripping’) results in a far better DVD copy than using some handi-cam.  So, with a few exceptions due to laziness on the part of the pirateer, most of these compilation DVDs are just as clear and crisp as the original.  However, don’t expect to find any of the ‘extras’ in the chapter menu.  You’ll get the full season of episodes and that’s it.  Same with the ‘already on DVD’ major motion films.  Quality is better, but no extras.

What I’ve also run into, while conducting research for this article, is that not all of these pirate-guys seem to have decent DVD authoring software.  So.. you put in the DVD.. you got your popcorn and squid rings ready with some pineapple juice and… the video stops every 13 minutes.  Just stops.  So you gotta re-start it, find where you left off and.. at some random point (usually during some crucial plot development).. it stops again.  Or my other favorite is the DVD that slowly lowers the volume as you play it.. so you keep raising the volume on your speakers.  Then.. the sound goes back to normal and now the sound is WAY TOO HIGH AND LOUD!!!  So you adjust it and.. it slowly creeps downward again.  Another problem every so often is that the bootlegger didn’t set the aspect ratio correctly so.. the entire frame is kind of ‘flattened’ making everyone seem squished and short with wide heads.  But worst of all is the DVD copy that plays perfectly all the way through.. but then refuses to play the last five minutes of the movie.  That really sucks.  Rarely happens, but it happens.

As part of my interest in technology and again, for research purposes, I’ve gone through the process of what it takes to make a duplicate of a copy-protected DVD.  Yes, it can be done with a standard laptop and easy to use software and no.. I’m not going to show you how to do it.  Don’t even bother emailing me privately for this info.  For one thing, pirating DVDs is illegal and, for another.. you might be a cop so.. no tutorial on how to do it here.  Look elsewhere.

So, knowing the process first-hand I had to ask myself as I strolled through many a DVD shop here in the Philippines, “Does THIS guy working here look like he has either the equipment or know-how to be making these DVDs as fast and plentiful a selection as he has on display here?”  The obvious answer is, “No.”  If all you have is a laptop and a stack of blank DVDs and you’re looking to stock up enough to run a store here.. this is what you’d be looking at;

Blank DVDs are fairly cheap, less than 15 Pesos if you buy them in bulk ‘stacks’.  To make a single DVD copy takes about as long as it takes to play the actual DVD.. roughly 70-85 minutes depending on your burner speed.  A person cranking them out all day might be able to produce 12-18 DVD copies a day at that rate and that’s not leaving much time for sleep.  In addition, the pirated DVDs sold here in the Philippines each come with a very nice graphic of the movie printed on the DVD itself.  That means the added cost (and time) to run it through a printer made for printing on DVDs.  In addition to this, each DVD here comes in a glossy, full-color cardboard sleeve that is as high quality printing as anything you’ll buy at a legit retailer.  The cost of printing the sleeves would be more than the cost of the DVD blanks.  And then of course each DVD is heat-sealed in plastic.. for your protection, or whatever.

No.. the Filipino Guy snacking on fish ‘n rice while watching ‘Tom & Jerry’ cartoons is simply NOT the master-mind behind this grand bootlegging operation.  This goes higher up.. much higher.  And this is why I believe the local DVD vendor will never be eradicated.  But more on that in a moment.

For those unfamiliar with the term, some countries are known as a ‘Banana Republic’.  This is not a derogatory term, it is simply a classification of countries which have few natural resources, a minor presence of non-foreign-owned manufacturing and they tend to import a large amount of the goods sold.  Welcome to the Philippines.  Well known for it’s luxurious, 5-Star hotels, resorts, golfing, beaches, scuba-diving, island hopping, mangoes, bananas and seafood.. but not quite known so much for manufacturing of exported goods as a significant portion of their gross national product trade.

So where does one get hold of mass quantities of bootlegged DVDs, made at a high quality in such a quick turnaround.. often days after a film releases in the theaters?  Look no further than China.. bootleg capital of the world.  They know how to reverse engineer everything from a clock-radio to a Russian Fighter Jet.  (I kid you not.)  With a massive, cheap labor force and a government that really doesn’t give a rat’s ass about international copyright laws.. factories in China can crank out glossy photo sleeves and use high-end DVD duplicator processes to manufacture the bootleg version as fast as the legit version.   All it takes is one advance DVD copy, sometimes produced exclusively for Academy of Arts members to review a film, to slip out of Hollywood and get it’s way into China and those DVD presses are knocking out the DVD version before the studio has even sent out it’s first legit shipment to retailers. These are then sold by the ship-load to ‘importers’ who buy in high volume who then sell them off downstream to the local street level.  End result?  DVDs for 35 Pesos on any street across the Philippines, Thailand and some even making their way right back (ironically) to within blocks of where the movie studios where the original films were first created.

Take a walk sometime just a few blocks away from Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards in to the Garment (Fashion) District over on Los Angeles Boulevard.  All up and down from 3rd Street to Santee Alley you can find bootleg DVDs any day of the week.  It’s not hard to find the end-sellers of pirated material.  What’s hard is stopping it at the Source.  Good luck dealing with the Chinese government on curbing their appetite for profits off of pirated movies.  In the States, every so often they catch somebody with a warehouse operation, cranking out either Mexican movies, major films or music CDs.. but those are rare and small time operators compared to the massive volume out here in the East.

So what’s my take on the whole scene?  Well, for one thing.. this bootlegging isn’t going to stop anytime soon.  Techies hired by the major studios have been working for years trying to come up with an encryption algorithm that would prevent DVDs/CDs from being duplicated.  But.. in  order for such media to play when you take a legit copy home, your standard DVD or CD player has to be able to decrypt it in order to play it.  Software patches are all that’s needed to ‘crack’ copy-protected DVDs.. encryption is just a minor hurdle to a real Pirate.  It only weeds out the newbies at home who aren’t too familiar with such software cracks.   So, going at it from a technical angle isn’t going to provide any solutions any time soon.

Prosecuting the end-user, the average home-owner who picked up some bootleg at a garage sale or flea market and fining them $250,000 or 5-year prison sentences not only punishes the wrong end of the problem in a very heavy handed, I dare say even ‘cruel and unusual’ manner, but it does nothing to stop the pirated materials from being created in mass in the first place.  Shutting down the small vendors either in the Philippines or the U.S. only means another few will pop up to handle the demand by someone else in their place.

I do shudder to think what will happen if one day investors decide to no longer fund studio projects for new movies.  It takes multi-millions of dollars to produce a high-end blockbuster.   It can easily cost a million just to produce a ‘low-budget’ movie.  If investors ever decided there is too much profit being lost due to pirating.. budgets for films could (conceivably) take a hit.  But up to this date.. the investment seems to be worth it.  There is still plenty of money being made that the list of big blockbuster hits are being slated for the next year.

Another thought I have has to do with what I call ‘market conditioning’.  Do you realize that the cost of making a DVD or CD, legitimately from the studio, has only gotten cheaper over the years.. yet the price has gone UP repeatedly.  It costs a studio less than 65 cents to produce a music CD.. and most of that cost is for the printing of the cover and the jewel case.  Yet most music CDs cost $11 to $18.  We, the consumers put up with it.  At least we did until Napster came onto the scene.  In fact, Napster is now ‘old-tech’.. even 13 year olds know Torrent is the ‘hip’ way to get the latest music, movies and tv shows they want.  Now, it could be said that the studios charge this much to compensate for their losses on the lost sales due to piracy.  That’s  a good argument.. if you ignore the fact that prices have been rising steadily upward for 20 years, long before the internet started putting media online.

One last thought.. you get what you pay for.  If you want the ‘extras’ and bonus tracks along with the original artwork and multiple language options.. go buy the original.  You won’t get that on a bootleg.  For me, nothing beats seeing a movie like, “The Expendables 2” in a state-of-the-art movie theater.  I think the only people who don’t mind the blurry or dulled colors from bootlegs are the 6 year olds watching “Toy Story” or “Finding Nemo” for the 50th time.

With all it’s pros and cons about quality, legality, politics and enforcement.. the only thing I can say for sure is that the bootleg DVD underground industry is not going away any time soon.  Not here in the Philippines and not anywhere else.

Henry V.


Author: Reekay V.

Since 2012 I’ve been traveling through various islands of the Philippines as a full-time Expat and spent 1999 living in Vietnam.

Share with me my ongoing adventures of life in the Philippines. Hopefully you find my observations helpful in your own adventures.
— Reekay


  1. Situation concerning pirate DVD’s is just the same here in Bangladesh. Movies, software, games – everything is pirated here. In fact, we’ve no law against piracy. Most pc users even don’t know there is something like original MS-Office suite! Only thing, unlike what is described here, the quality of our street side DVD movies is way better. Picture is crisp, and never gets stuck halfway.

    1. Yes, I didn’t even get into the games, software and porn. If it can fit on a DVD it’s out there to be had at a cheap price anywhere down the street.

  2. Having lived in the Philippines for almost eight years my experience is as follows. As short as one year ago you would be able to find with regularity a major movie release sometimes before it got released in American Theaters (Many movies show in Asia first before the USA) So imagine watching a Batman or Avatar before it hits theaters. COOL!!! Unfortunately, this has now mostly ended with major clampdowns in the Philippines of pirated movies so there is less variety and even less of the blockbuster films. SUCKS!!!

    There are basically three kinds of DVD to buy. Clear Copy, DVD Copy and Blue Ray Copy. Typically, clear copies are blurry and not worth purchasing at any price. DVD copy is the way to go for the money as most are 35p or 3 for 100p. This includes TV Series for an entire season or a mainstream movie. Blue Ray are much better resolution and can range from 50p to 100p depending on where you buy them and the nature of the movie purchased. No matter where you buy the DVD you must always see the product first. This means having them put it in a DVD player and watching two or three second views of each chapter to make sure it is indeed a DVD quality copy.

  3. These days, in the movie theaters, it seems like the release dates are within about a week or so of American releases. What is strange is that sometimes a particular movie will release here as late as 6 weeks after it’s been released in the US. But it’s usually not a blockbuster, it’s some romance comedy or goofy comedy film. As for DVD, yes.. seeing it on the player first is a good way to weed out the crappy handi-cam versions.

    I only have a few on hand for nights that I have absolutely nothing going on, which is rare. Lately I’ve had a head cold so having some movies in the house helps to pass the time. Aside from that I prefer seeing them in the theater. If I have a DVD and watch it, I then give it to my g/f since I rarely watch the same movie twice in the same year and don’t want them cluttering up space in my studio.

  4. My husband is very strict about NOT buying anything pirated. All movies, DVDs, CDs and software we own are original. The last time I was in the Philippines I bought some pirated Filipino movies and the quality suck so bad and I couldn’t enjoy the movie.

Comments are closed.